Just as the ski lifts in the European Alps grind to a stop, the sails on the boats in the harbours of the Lyngen Alps are starting to unfurl. Yes, they may think it's all over in Europe, but, as they say, it's always winter somewhere – and in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, winter is turning into spring conditions in April and May. Gavin Baylis reports..
This is backcountry ski touring with a difference. Flying from Oslo to Tromso, well inside the Arctic Circle, you board a 44ft boat to sail from one majestic island peak to the next. Pristine untracked snow as far as the eye can see. If Carlsberg made a ski tour, well, this would be it.
Leaving Tromso in the late afternoon, having flown from Heathrow in the morning, we set sail for the Lyngen Alps and surrounding islands, storing all our skis and snowboards on deck in a customised Thule type roof top box, while our boots and various other items of kit were stowed away in the cockpit hold and our cabins.We aimed to be moored up by dusk (which that far north is around 23:15) after some seven hours at sea, ready for our first mountain peak in the morning.
One of our group. Philou Buch, a popular French guide born in Briancon and working out of La Grave, joined us to make up the numbers. Apart from taking more photos than any of us tourists, he was just in awe of the mountains dropping into the sea and on the final day, hiking to the summit, exclaimed to us that if we were seeking anywhere in the world to better this then we might as well give up now. This is from someone who has the Ecrins Massif on his doorstep.
Each day started off with our guide, Per As, a Swede I’ve known for some 12 years, assessing the conditions and deliberating over the best route for the ascent - and subsequent descent. Where possible for hiking up, the snow has to be firm and not too soft, especially for the boarders using snow shoes as sinking down in the spring snow can be hard work on a 1000m climb. The opposite is hard packed snow and ice on a traverse, which is even hard for skiers using skins and, thus, crampons become a necessity.
All this is complicated by the fact that the sun has been at work on the slopes since 01:30 in the morning; ie. not your usual Alpine scenario.
The main benefit is that you are climbing from sea level so you have no altitude issues. The peaks, at most, are only 1200m which means four to five hours steady climbing with numerous rests to take in the stunning scenery.
Most mornings, we were ready to go by around 08:30, having transferred the kit up on to the dock. Transceivers are checked, as there is always the ever present danger of avalanches. Sometimes there is a walk along the beach prior to commencing a hike up through some colourful uninhabited wooden summer houses, through their gardens in the untracked snow still lying around. Then it’s a case of finding a route through the birch saplings and trees prior to getting above the tree line where, usually, the spring snow gives way to colder snow..
Each summit is always breathtaking with views of the boat way down below you and the surrounding peaks mirrored in the blue sea. Once skins and snowshoes are removed and packed away, it's into downhill mode, finding the best lines that maximise the snow pack on offer as well as taking a route where the terrain suggests that you’ll ride the mountain straight to the sea below.
The powder eventually gives way to classic spring snow as the trees loom, then, for the more adventurous, it’s into combat riding to find your line through the mature birch and, then, the young saplings again. Back along the beach to the boat, the skipper has sourced some local delicacy and made the Nordic equivalent of a 'Chalet Tea' for our return – smoked salmon in pancakes or slivers of cured goat - before casting off to set sail for our next location.
When touring, choice of clothing for the ascent and descent is important. Inside the Arctic Circle you'd expect it to be cold. Yet, on the way up we usually stopped to strip off layers –often climbing in just a light mid-layer and leg zips open all the way. Then at the summit it’s out with the down jackets and fleece buffs for a longer lunch stop. The good news is that the same kit you wear on the summit is great for the cockpit of the boat where it can be quite cool as you sail along in the evening – but the scenery is so awesome you couldn't just sit in the cabin, however warm and cosy. And there is the chance of spotting sea eagles soaring above you, as well as numerous kamikaze puffins seemingly oblivious to the boat about to mow them down, though they always dive right at the last minute.
We have dinner either while travelling to the next port or once moored up – Per could knock up a mean reindeer stew en route but, with the swell, it often meant catching the ingredients before they landed on the floor. There is also the possibility of fresh caught cod off the back of the boat. Then, after yet another postcard type sunset, at around 22:30 it's time for bed and a night's rest before another day and another peak.
Despite the initial forecasts before we left, we were fortunate with the weather and mostly woke to bluebird days. But, one morning, there was the sound of heavy rain on the deck – not the most inspiring conditions to entice you up a mountain from the warmth of the cabin. This is where the long daylight hours are such an advantage - you can wait the weather out and set off later when the skies clear. On that day, we left at 15:30 and returned in time for dinner. But the group on another boat consisting of Germans from Gore-Tex with their client manufacturers, stayed put. You would have thought they’d want to demonstrate the fine performance qualities of their fabric?
I’ve now made five trips to Lyngen. So that tells you how good it is. And, although more guides are now taking groups there you know that it can never become too popular,due to the logistics of available boats and skippers.
The only drawback? The price of apres in Norway - probably the most expensive beer in the world.